“Happiness comes from within.” – many, many wise people and thousands of Hallmark cards
As a yoga teacher, I love the quantitative support the practice has received from all the recent medical and scientific research studies on meditation, mindfulness and yoga. It’s one thing to know in your heart that the practice has helped you, so surely it can help others. It is quite another to read articles and papers explaining how and how many people could benefit from it.
As a philosophy teacher, I never imagined I would one day get “proof” of one of the most powerful tenets of yoga’s philosophy: the practice of santosa or contentment. Do me a favor and read that again. It is surprising to many that contentment or happiness is not only a fruit of the practice of yoga, but is a practice itself. In other words, contentment is something that we do.
According to Dan Gilbert, a psychologist and Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, we humans have the ability to create – to synthesize – happiness. He goes on to explain that “synthetic” happiness is just as powerful as “actual” happiness in changing our experience of our lives. In fact, he argues that “synthetic” happiness, which we create ourselves by choosing to be content with whatever our situation, yields an even deeper and more lasting sense of satisfaction. If that is the case, it conceivable that Gilbert and his team have proved the ancient maxim that happiness comes from within! (Watch his TED Talk titled “The Surprising Science of Happiness.” You won’t regret the investment of 21 minutes.)
Gilbert’s most astonishing claim (and that’s saying something because his talk is filled with awesome surprises):
“… a year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.”
Trust me, this sounds much less fantastic (in the true sense of the word) in context. We are, it turns out, directly in control of how happy we are. In other words, our happiness is not dependent on the vagaries of life – including events as wildly unlikely as winning the lottery or getting hit by a bus. And this man-made happiness feels just as good and might even keep feeling good for longer than the happiness we “find” as we wander through life.
Gilbert’s research inspires even more zeal in the yogi in me for my practice. After all, for 2,500 years people have practiced contentment on and off their mats by practicing yoga. We start small – finding happiness (or at least contentment) in the most uncomfortable of yoga postures. We discover that we have a choice when in a painful situation. We can internally moan and groan, or even bail out. Or we can choose to hang out, breathe and experience the sensations of our own change and growth.
Before we know it, we might notice that we’re better able to breathe and stay open to our boss’s constructive criticism during a tough annual review. Or we might discover with surprise that we don’t fall into despair when our child is diagnosed with a chronic illness. Or we might be stunned to realize that, if given the option, we would not trade that excruciatingly painful relocation because it yielded opportunities and relationships that we could never have had if we’d been able to happily stay put.
In short, yoga, too, believes that contentment or happiness is something we create. And when we’re relying on this happiness from within (or to borrow Gilbert’s phrase, synthetic happiness), our sense of well-being and good fortune provides a more stable and lasting foundation from which to navigate the inevitable ups and downs of life.
So, while I very much hope you do hit the lottery and don’t get hit by a bus, I also know that neither of these things really matters in the long run. Instead, my hope for you is that you (through lots and lots of practice) are able to tap into your innate, human ability to create your own happiness.
“Come on get happy!” – David Cassidy
“When we stay both hungry and humble, there is nothing that we cannot do.”
Earlier this week I included handstand in one of my yoga classes. For the students in class that day, it made sense to have them work on this challenging and exciting hand-balance at the wall. As we came back together afterwards, one student asked, “What’s the end game in that posture? Where are we headed?” I described the evolution from a handstand against a wall into a free-standing handstand in the middle of the room. My student smiled and gave me the perfect yoga response:
“Well, I sure have a long way to go between here and there, but it’s good to know where I’m going.”
Why was her response perfect? Because it crystallizes a concept in yoga called desireless practice. To engage in desireless practice, does not mean that we do not want to eventually get “there.” Not at all. It means that we are perfectly content to be at each step along the way between “here” (where we are right now) and “there” (to borrow my student’s expression, the posture’s end game). Desireless practice is a way to find the sweet spot between being hungry and being humble.
When we are hungry, we are willing to do the hard work required of us. Blood, sweat and tears? Sure. Elbow grease? Absolutely. Go the extra mile? Happily. Our hunger has us fully engaged and inspired. Our hunger gives us heaps of hope and a sense of possibility.
When we are humble, we are willing to try. We are willing to accept less than perfection because we know that we are decidedly less than perfect. When we are humble, we are willing and eager to learn. We are, in other words, exceedingly teachable. When we are humble, we are forgiving with ourselves. We are also gentle – not so gentle that we’re not trying hard, but gentle enough that we don’t beat ourselves up when we don’t succeed.
Desireless practice is the balance between hungry and humble. When we are engaging in desireless practice, we allow our destination – the full expression of the posture in yoga – to inspire and to guide each of our attempts. We also trust that each of our attempts is perfectly enough. Even the tiniest of baby steps is progress, after all. And if we don’t take a step forward, that’s OK too. Trying has served to solidify what we’ve already learned.
Desireless practice is profoundly liberating because it frees us from the bondage of our desires. So, you might be thinking, if I still want to get “there” eventually, isn’t that a desire? Maybe, but desireless practice transforms your desire to get “there” from a mindset that makes anything less than success a disappoint into a perspective that recognizes progress as the “win” that it is. How freeing is that?
Whether you’ve decided to learn to stand on your hands, or to write a novel, or to plant a vegetable garden or to play a Mozart sonata, pause for a second and consider what desireless practice would look like for you. How do you find the sweet balance between being hungry and being humble? Can you imagine your “end game” being inspiring rather than daunting? Can you imagine specific baby steps that you can celebrate?
If you can, you are well on your way. For when you are both hungry and humble, there is truly nothing that you cannot do … one day.
“To lean in means to grab opportunities without hesitation. An older meaning for lean in is to incline into something, such as a skier leaning in at a turn or pedestrian leaning into the wind during a heavy gale.” – Grammarist
All my life I’ve been really good at leaning in to whatever I’m doing. I suspect that I developed the habit of leaning in because hard work is what it took for me to be successful in school. Unlike my husband and son, who could (and did) coast on their natural intellectual gifts alone, if I didn’t study my fanny off, I did not get the A’s I wanted to get.
This habit of mine is not limited to academics. I’ve been known to lean in in all of my endeavors – walking the dogs (faster, further!), volunteering in the elementary school parent teacher organization, grading papers, spring cleaning, reading a book, my yoga practice. After all, when I lean in, good things happen. Dogs get tired. Jobs get done. The house gets clean. The book gets finished. Growth and change and even improvement transpire.
Until last week, I would have told you that leaning in required hard work. After last week, I would say that this is not necessarily the case. I now believe that leaning in requires discipline and commitment, but not always hard work. In fact, last week I discovered that leaning in can involve exactly the opposite.
Let me explain.
Last week was Villanova University’s spring break. As we departed from our last class before break, my students asked me if I had anything fun planned for my time off. I smiled and said that these breaks didn’t feel much like breaks to me as I still had my other jobs to do. It would be a normal week, I suspected. Life, however, had another plan for me.
Sunday evening the phone rang announcing a 2-hour delay for my daughter’s school because several inches of heavy, wet snow were expected during the morning rush hour. To give my husband more time to get the driveway cleared, I texted my Monday yoga students and cancelled class the next morning. For the first time in ages, I went to bed on Sunday night without setting the alarm and slept like the dead.
Feeling quite decadent, I realized as I went to bed on Monday night that I didn’t have to set the alarm again! Without my Villanova class to teach, I had nowhere to be until 11:30 on Tuesday morning. Ahhhhh! I actually thought to myself, “I’m having a sneak-attack spring break!”
By late Tuesday morning, I noticed that I was feeling absolutely exhausted. My body felt like it weighted 700 pounds. My eyelids were heavy and my mind was sluggish. I thought for sure I was getting sick. I asked a friend if she would cover my Tuesday night class and decided to cancel my crack of dawn class on Wednesday. Another night without an alarm clock! This was crazy. Despite my exhaustion, I smiled and recognized how luxurious this week was starting to feel.
Wednesday morning, I woke up “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” (to quote my grandmother). An extra 90 minutes of sleep appeared to be just what the doctor ordered! Also, it was a new moon – in Ashtanga yoga, we honor “moon days” by taking a rest day. Because I fancy myself a hard worker, I rarely take moon days, but something about the way this week was going made me hesitate. Though choosing not to practice took a surprising amount of will power, I decided to dig deep, lean in to my “spring break” and take the rest day. Again, ahhhhhhh!
This theme continued for the remainder of the week. I found myself resisting the urge to work ahead in my continuing education course, choosing instead to start (and almost finish!) a novel. I decided to turn off my laptop, instead calling my son and daughter to chat leisurely. I turned the laptop back on, but chose to browse the internet for a new dining room rug. I made a pot of chili. I sat down and watched several episodes of a show I’d been hearing about (Riverdale – loved it!). I suggested going into the city on Saturday afternoon to check out a museum where one of my students works in restoration. I messed around on Spotify. I continued to sleep each night until I woke up.
In short, I spent an entire week leaning in to taking a break. I embraced rest. I sought rejuvenation. I slowed down. I worked less hard. I wound up savoring every day.
When I look back at the definition of leaning in, I see that for most of my life I’ve only leaned in the old fashioned way. Last week, during my sneak-attack spring break, I developed a new way of leaning in. Without hesitation (and in a way that surprised me wholly because it was so wildly out of character) I grabbed at the opportunity for rest and for schedule-free days and for a little fun. By leaning into my out-of-the-blue desire to slow down, I wound up giving myself more than a break. I (maybe?) gave myself a new way to approach life.
Go ahead. You can do it. Lean in, my friends.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust
As a traveler who feels that exploring this beautiful world is an important way to stay open-minded, curious, and grateful, I have struggled with this famous Proust quote. In fact, I would say that seeing new landscapes gives me “new eyes” to see and appreciate the familiar upon my homecoming. But last week, in an instant, I “got it.”
As I was gathering up my blocks and straps after a yoga class, I looked down to discover that my wedding ring wasn’t on my finger. I panicked and texted my husband, who was working from home, to ask him to check to see if it was on my dresser. In reply, he sent this picture. While it was a huge relief to confirm that I hadn’t lost my ring, but simply forgotten to put it back on after my shower, that doesn’t explain why I couldn’t stop looking at the picture.
Nothing in that image is new. I’ve had the ring tree itself for most of my life. It was a gift from my godmother at some point in my pre-teen years. Except for the wedding ring itself, nothing in the image is even especially valuable. (Let’s just say, I’ve always been a girl who appreciates “pretty” just as much as “real” in my jewelry.) If I look closely, I can pick out specific earrings – the ones that an old friend’s sister made, the ones that were a birthday gift from a friend here, the ones from my mom – and seeing them in a photo makes me happy.
But that’s not really what captivated me either. Days later, I think I keep looking at the picture because it is so pretty! To me, it looks like an image from a home and garden magazine – one I would have (in the days when my old house was new and I spent a lot of time thinking about decorating) torn out because I wanted my own home to look like that.
I think I keep looking at the picture because it is a wonder and a mystery to me that something so beautiful could be sitting (and has been for decades) on my very own dresser and, even though I stand there every single day, I never even noticed! My husband’s photo gave me “new eyes” to see a very old, very familiar landscape as if for the first time. And, to be honest, I’ve found myself using these “new eyes” each morning to soak up the beauty of that little ring tree in the “real world” too.
My yoga practice has taught me the importance and the power of staying clear-eyed and keenly observant of things that are ridiculously familiar. If I don’t, you see, I could miss all of the tiny changes that comprise the transformation that yoga creates in my body as I move and breathe each morning – the slow (glacial even) opening of my hamstrings, the miniscule feelings of developing confidence in an inversion, the fact that I am (a little) stronger each day.
If I only noticed the big changes – when I could do a new thing well, or hold a posture for the full count or touch the floor with straight legs – my practice would be very dull and uninspiring indeed. It is the ability (I’d go so far as to call it a skill, actually) to see the baby steps along the way that keeps me unrolling my mat day after day. It is this that makes my practice seem brand new each morning. It is these “new eyes” that make my incredibly familiar practice seem like uncharted territory because I’ve never practiced today before.
So, no, seeing my husband’s picture was not the first time I’ve had the epiphany that “new eyes” can make even the most familiar sights seem unfamiliar. Not only do I practice this skill on my yoga mat, but I do it a great deal as I wander around my little corner of the world. Where I live is as spectacularly rich in natural beauty as any place in the world I’ve been fortunate enough to travel. It’s not unusual to find myself pausing to gawk at my favorite tree on the way to church or the creek where I like to walk my dogs just as I do when I’m in a brand new place.
Travel and yoga have taught me that even the tiniest things deserve to be seen (really seen!) and relished. Travel and yoga have taught me to feel profoundly grateful for the opportunity to see with “new eyes.” My husband’s little photo, taken on the fly, somehow brings this experience to an even deeper level. Somehow, the intimacy of the image – of my personal baubles in my bedroom – gives me “new eyes” to see more than my surroundings. I feel like, for a moment at least, I have “new eyes” to see my life.
The gratitude I feel in response to seeing with these “new eyes” is more than “I’m so lucky to get to see this.” This picture somehow makes me feel profoundly lucky to be here in this one, specific, small life. And this, I suspect, is exactly what Mr. Proust was saying all along.
“In the beginner ’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki
In the first weeks of my husband’s first post-college job, he would often come home with his proverbial knickers in a twist. It wasn’t that he was frustrated that he was capable of so much more than was being asked of him. This he expected. It was the fact that when he asked “Why?” when faced with yet another seemingly superfluous step in the process, the only answer he received was “because it’s the way we do things.”
Whether it was “Why do so many people have to sign off on each claim?,” or “Why do we log all calls this way?” or “Why don’t we store the files this way?,” my highly inquisitive, intellectually creative husband genuinely wanted to know the answer. And, if the answer he received did not make sense to him, I guarantee whatever expert he was asking, whether it be a co-worker or manager, would face a barrage of additional questions.
Sadly, as is true for so many of us who have always done things the way we’ve always done them, many of the people he worked with had no idea why they did things the way they did. They were not stupid. They simply had not thought about “why.” Which is why my husband, a brand new beginner at his job who needed to know why anything was being done, could see so many things that the experts couldn’t see that could be simplified, streamlined or improved.
While my husband’s manager wound up loving him and being sorry when he headed off to law school, I can imagine it might not have been 100% easy for her. After all, when you’re the “expert” and a “beginner” is questioning the way you do what you do, it could seem insubordinate, overly critical or just rebellious. Actually, I can more than imagine it. I’m married to the man and sometimes I just want him to fall in line with the way I make our grocery lists or organize the laundry “because it’s the way I do it!”
Like his manager, I will grudgingly admit that my husband has a keen eye for seeing new ways of doing things. As annoying as it can be to change, many of his suggested new ways are improvements. Thirty years together have taught me he isn’t suggesting that I was wrong or stupid for doing something the way I’ve always done it. He’s truly trying help me get even better at doing whatever it is.
Perhaps it is (at least in part) my marriage that has helped me to embrace the empowering practice of seeking “beginner’s mind” in all things. Especially in things I’ve done a million times for a “million years” – like a sun salutation or a forward fold or any of the other postures in Ashtanga yoga’s primary series.
While the yoga postures I do each morning don’t change, my body does. If I were to stay in “expert’s mind” I might never have stopped holding my knee in the standing balance where I now am comfortable holding the toe of my fully extended leg. I might never have moved away from the wall in headstand. I might never have tried some of the backbends that are now a part of my daily practice.
After all, none of these postures was possible for me to do when I was a beginner. At that time, the modifications I learned to do instead were 100% appropriate. But, though I stopped being a beginner to yoga, I needed to resist the urge to become an “expert.” I had to stay curious about what was possible for me. I had to stay open-minded about my capabilities. I had to hold my limitations lightly or they would never fall away as I grew and changed.
One way to do this was to keep exposing myself to new ways of doing things. By reading. By watching. By seeking out new experts – classmates who could do things I couldn’t do, teachers with a different style than mine, even my annoying husband who, when I told him I was making progress on my headstand, despite never (ever!) having done yoga popped up into one in the middle of the living room and said, casually, “like this?” Even when they were talking about something I’d worked really hard to master, I had to be willing to listen and explore when someone – expert or beginner – said, “You might want to try that another way.”
Being willing to let go of your expert status frees you for unlimited growth. It empowers you to listen and to think when someone asks “Why?” – not to defend the way you do things but with a beginner’s true, open-minded curiosity. Being willing to not be an expert enables you to continue to stretch into your potential. Because to cease growing and changing and becoming would be a most excellent reason to get our knickers in a twist.